Mr. Splitfoot – Helen McCloy (1968)

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Fifteen year old Lucinda’s parents Francis and Folly are hosting a dinner party at their mansion high in the Catskill Mountains; the invited guests are Francis’ literary agent David Crowe and his wife Serena, and the head of the publishing house Bradford Alcott and his wife Ginevra. Resentful of the adults – particularly her stepmother Folly – Lucinda plots with her friend Vanya to scare them with a supernatural manifestation of “Mr Splitfoot”. But things don’t quite go to plan. First, Dr. Basil Willing and his injured wife Gisela are forced to stay at the mansion due to a broken-down car. Then, Lucinda’s trick prompts David to stay in the mansion’s “haunted room” as part of an experiment. The room has apparently caused three previous residents to die mysteriously – and far from disproving the haunting, the room seems to claim another victim, as David is found dead of unknown causes.
Dr. Willing begins to investigate – and Lucinda and her friend Vanya, unknown to the adults, launch their own investigation.

I thought this book would be apt for Halloween due to its plot involving impossible deaths in cursed rooms. Imagine my surprise when the opening description mentions Christmas decorations! (Though this is not actually set over Christmas, since a bus carrying children to school makes up a minor part of the story.)
Another reason I’d wanted to re-read this was because I’d mentioned it to Moira of the great Clothes in Books as maybe the only book that got me to actually notice the clothes characters are wearing. Normally I’m hopelessly unobservant of them – my eyes just glaze over (which did actually happen on many other occasions in the book). I had mentioned a “rainbow tie die” worn by young Lucinda as being the one clothes description I could visualize. Well, I was in for another surprise. Here is the passage in question:

The modern shift she was wearing hung straight from shoulder to hem, but, unlike the medieval shift, this was a “psychedelic” print – discordant colors, magenta, mustard and turquoise in a blurred pattern that created an optical illusion of writhing motion.

Not quite a rainbow tie dye. I am a clothes dunce and hope I can be forgiven for my error – but you can see how the image struck me like a blunt instrument.
So, even I can tell from the fashion that this is no Golden Age story. In fact, it was published in 1968, twelve years after McCloy’s last novel featuring her series detective, the psychiatrist Dr. Basil Willing. Not only does it return to that character, who first appeared in Dance of Death thirty years prior, it also returns to the format of a classically clued detective story, and even features an impossible crime.

The setup almost matches that of John Dickson Carr’s The Red Widow Murders: An old house contains a haunted room, where all who are left alone in it die. The history of the room is recounted to us, and the characters draw lots to see who must stay in the room – the unlucky resident then dies, with no cause immediately apparent. In the Carr, the lack of signal from the victim marks his death; here, the victim rings a bell to signal he’s being attacked.
The circumstances of the room are set up very deftly, through description scattered in various places. The solution is not exactly Carr-level, but it does hold together well, and there are additional aspects to it that add flair – such as the family parrot who seems to echo the words the victim murmured as he was left in the room, and the meaning of the alarm signal. This is how a good mystery writer can take a well-worked classic and develop it into something more impressive that fits within the context of the rest of the mystery. However… if you think about it for very long, you might start to wonder how the culprit ever thought they’d get away with it.

Lucinda and Vanya’s plan involving “Mr Splitfoot” references the original incidents with the Fox Sisters which sparked the Spiritualist movement.
Image from the Missouri Historical Society

In addition to the impossibility, the book also focuses on Lucinda. We quickly discover her frustrations with the adults around her and her relationship with her neighbour Vanya. Through her we discover the secret of her house – a huge attic space (which provides another clothes moment) that allows her to hear anything spoken in the main rooms of the house. She returns to the attic several times through the book, and over the course of these visits we witness her grappling with the truths and lies of the adults around her. Except – once again I’ve read a book that forgets about the most compelling character right at the end!
Child (or in this case teen) characters can be annoying or unrealistic in fiction. I think McCloy does fairly well here. Lucinda and her friend Vanya’s grown-up levels of book knowledge can perhaps be explained by their rich or eccentric parents, or their physical isolation from other children. But their thoughts and actions match their age and are drawn well. I loved the scene where, having overheard an important clue, they resolve to plant a letter in order to “help” the police, with little thought to what they might uncover.

Lucinda proffered the pencil. “You ought to write this, Vanya.”
“You’re a man. You ought to know how men write when they’re writing love letters.”
To admit inexperience would have been too humiliating. Vanya frowned, clenched his tongue between his teeth for a moment, then took the pencil from her and began to write slowly, speaking the words aloud for Lucinda’s benefit as he wrote.
“Dearest, When we are separated, I die a little…”

The scene is farcical, but the results are quite serious.

The adult characters tended to blend together for me; they all have different life circumstances and psychological hangups, but I’d struggle to tell their dialogue apart from each other. Perhaps it’s because they are all rich and successful couples, and share a certain coldness. With the page time mostly devoted to Lucinda, the adults get little chance to distinguish themselves.
One of the psychological principles key to sorting out the truth of everything is a real thing, and seems convincing and clever; the murderer’s motivation is far more straightforward for crime fiction, though.

Winter Landscape, Valley of the Catskills by Charles Herbert Moore.
This shows a scene from just over 100 years before the book takes place.

Finally, there’s the setting, which was evoked very well, and the spooky atmosphere, which was less successful. Although the events themselves are strong enough that a reader might wonder if there’s any way out of them that’s not supernatural, the only character who seems convincingly scared by the ghost is the victim, who naturally exits the story at an early stage. Well, there was this moment, courtesy of Serena Crowe:

“Ghost?” Her voice was high-pitched, abrasive. “Don’t tell me this house is haunted! How absolutely crashing! How totally tripwise!”

I didn’t really know how to react to that one.
There are some token nods towards “science turning up so many oddities today that a man has to be very stubborn or very ignorant to say of anything, “That’s impossible!”” But I was not convinced. All the investigators immediately treat the case as murder – including the kids.
However, the book does deliver a thrilling climactic scene set high in the mountains. I would love to see a movie of this book, if only for that tense and cinematic scene. The denouement afterwards is odd, but memorable; I won’t spoil it, but I had to wonder what McCloy thought of the modern world and what may happen in the future. The book seems to be reaching for some greater meaning here, but I didn’t find that it reflected anything in the story proper. Maybe just too subtle for me!

Other opinions:

Ah Sweet Mystery
Beneath the Stains of Time
Dead Yesterday
The Grandest Game in the World
The Green Capsule
In Search of the Classic Mystery
The Passing Tramp
Pretty Sinister
The Reader is Warned

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